Tuesday, December 31, 2013

I am Malala, by Malala Yousafzai and Christina Lamb

I am an over-educated woman who took her education for granted.  In fact, I spent ages fighting against having to go to school; I was always looking for ways to get out of going or, when it became an option, skipping classes.  I look back at that time, and realize that a part of that was boredom – I don’t have the patience to do things I don’t care to do.  But I also look back on that time and realize how much of a waste it was on my part.  That message was especially reinforced to be while reading my last read, I am Malala, by Malala Yousafzai and Christina Lamb.

You’d have to be living under the proverbial rock to not have heard about Malala in the last year.  Malala and her family are from the Swat valley in Pakistan, and she and her father came to the attention of the global community in their efforts to secure education for the children of Pakistan.  Malala’s quest was always personal; as the daughter of an educator, the love and quest for knowledge was seemingly bread into her.  However, with the rise of extremists in Pakistan following the 9/11 New York terrorist attacks, Malala and her father experienced increased pressures to stop speaking against the Taliban and government, and then to stop speaking for the education of girls.  In late 2011, undaunted by an increasing climate of hostility, Malala continued to be a voice to the world on behalf of Pakistani girls who wanted (she might argue needed) education.  In response, the Taliban showed themselves to be the barbarous cowards they are, and ambushed her school bus on its way home and shot her in the face (two class mates were also injured in the attack).  I am Malala traces the history of Pakistan, the Swat valley, and Malala’s family until that fateful day in October 2011, and then details her recovery in the UK and her continued efforts to raise awareness of the need for education of children, and the atrocities committed by the Taliban against the people of Pakistan.

This book is heartbreaking.  It brings into the light the declining situation faced by women in countries were religious extremists are limiting their rights.  Malala’s life story, told from the perspective of a young woman who wants nothing more than to learn and make her family proud of her, adds a human face to the plight of these women.  For many of Malala’s contemporaries, being forced to drop out of school at young ages to help care for their households, being married at young ages, and living in fear of coming to the attention of local religious leaders who can beat you in public for not following religious laws is a life that is almost unimaginable to our Western sensibilities, and yet it’s the daily reality for millions.  

Reading Malala’s account made me re-examine my understanding of Islamic culture; I think we (Westerners) get so caught up with focusing on the almost medieval religious laws that some extremists are trying to force on their people that we overlook the modern nature of daily life in the Middle East.  What struck me most about Malala’s story is that she and her friends were fans of the Twilight books, and when they decorated their hands with henna for celebrations, they would work chemistry equations into the designs.  I will freely admit to having been ignorant and naïve about how Malala and her contemporaries lived – behind the veils and burqas are women just like us in the West; they want to be free to learn, love and live as they will.  The face the Taliban would like present to the public is only a fraction of the reality, and so I learnt quite a lot from Malala.

While reading I am Malala, I found myself wondering who the actual author of the work was.  Christina Lamb is credited as a co-author, and I assume she wrote the passages about the political history of Pakistan, but I would also assume that Malala’s father wrote passages for inclusion; the story is told in the first person (with Malala narrating), but in Malala’s description of her father’s love for her, I think the reader can infer that its her father’s words and not her own.  More than that, there are certain passages that read like they were written by a light-hearted but conscientious teenager (stories about gossiping and hanging out with friends) that don’t quite match the tone of the next paragraph which speaks to the fractioning of political parties following in Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.  I’m sure Malala was involved with the writing of this account, but I do have doubts that she was the principal author.

So, final verdict?  Read this book.  It’s a beautifully written account of the past and current state of affairs in Pakistan, and brings to light a major humanitarian crisis that is facing the world; without education, ignorance and hate will take root in civilization, and spread like a cancer.  I am Malala reminds us that there are human faces associated with a crisis that is occurring half a world away.  Once you’ve read the book, I would also encourage you to donate to the Malala Fund (malalafund.org), which has the stated mission of encouraging education for all children, of both genders.  

Longbourn, by Jo Baker

I think this blog has established that I’m a fan of Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.  I’ve read it multiple times, as well as some of the books that it’s inspired in recent years (see here, and here).  So when I saw my latest read at Chapters, I was intrigued.  Longbourn, by Jo Baker, tells the story of Pride and Prejudice from the servants’ point of view; think Downton Abbey meets Austen. 

Longbourn is, principally, the story of three of the domestic staff of the Bennett family; Mrs. Hill the cook/housekeeper, Sarah the first housemaid, and John Smith the footman (who Baker notes is introduced once in the original text as the deliverer of a message to Jane from Bingley).  From the small crumbs of the staff that Austen sprinkled through her great homage to Georgian domesticity, Baker created a complementary plot and back stories for these almost invisible, and yet incredibly crucial, people in the Bennett household.

When I picked up this book, I thought of it as simply an interesting way to tell the love story that is so well known to me.  However, I quickly realized this wasn’t Baker’s purpose.  I’ll give you an example of what I mean; one of the most indelible moments in Elizabeth and Darcy’s love story is when she appears at Netherfield Hall with her petticoats with at least six inches of mud running up the hem.  It’s at that moment that Darcy recognizes Elizabeth’s vitality and kindness, and starts to fall in love with her.  That’s all well and good, but what about those petticoats?!  For a family with five girls on a limited income, they can’t just be replaced!  Oh no, it’s Sarah’s job, with her cracked and rough hands and the homemade lye soap she boiled, to make them wearable again.  

And the hits keep coming!  Kind, considerate Jane?  Barely notices Sarah or has a care for James’ role in the household.  The kind and gregarious Bingley?  He becomes a lot less desirable as a husband when you realize that his fortune, so coveted by the mamas of Merriton, comes from the sugar/slave trade.  And Mr. Bennett, in not wanting to hear his wife complain about Mr. Collins’ arrival doesn’t tell her about it until the morning of the day he’s expected; great for him, but what about Mrs. Hill?  She’s got to get a guest room ready, and then feed the man who will eventually decide her fate at Longbourn – Mr. Bennett left her no time to prepare!  In Baker’s telling of the story, the Bennetts sit on the periphery of the lives that those below-stairs are living; their actions necessarily dictate what the staff do day-to-day, but they and their concerns are removed from the personal live and concerns of the staff.  It’s an interesting dynamic.

Plot is one thing, but what about the characters and writing style?  Baker gave herself the task of creating characters and plots that run in the background of one of the most beloved pieces of English literature.  And she did a great job.  It’s clear Baker lived with Austen’s works for years, as her history is spot on and her character profiles match what you would expect for an early 19th century household staff.  Mrs. Hill, Sarah and James, who trade the focus of the narration between them, are all dynamic characters with back stories that are fleshed out, believable, and which make them into engaging characters.  And Baker’s talent isn’t limited to the characters.  Her writing style also reflects a great comfort and familiarity with the world of Austen; her tone, pace and tenor match with Austen’s almost pitch perfectly.  It’s almost as is Pride and Prejudice and Longbourn could be considered to be parts one and two of the same story, written by the same author.

So, final verdict?  In a world that is increasingly being bombarded with works of fiction inspired by Pride and Prejudice, Longbourn seems to be a wonderful addition to the pack.  Leave aside your stories about Darcy, or Miss Darcy, or the married Mrs. Darcy, and instead focus your attention on those whose lives are lived to make the genteel and matrimonially-obsessed characters of Austen’s works possible.  I would definitely recommend this book to Austen fans out there.

The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak

 My personal policy is that I don’t see movies until I’ve read the book they’re based on.  This becomes tricky if a movie sneaks up on me, and I didn’t realize that it was being made; or if I don’t have time to commit to finding and reading the book; or if I wasn’t interested in a book until they cast an awesome actor that I like in the adaptation.  In all of those cases, I’m general scrambling to catch up and read the book, and by the time I do, the flick is out of the theater, and I’m left in the cold.  The result is that I end up reading a lot of books that have been turned into movies, but without ever actually getting around it seeing the movie.  I think I’m in the same boat with my latest read, The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak.  The trailer I saw for the movie looked really good, but I still probably wouldn’t have read the book and not seen the movie until my dad recommended I see the movie.  My dad never makes recommendations.  So this made me sit up and take notice.

So, a word on the plot.  The Book Thief is the story of Liesel Meminger, a young girl who is living in Germany at the time when Hitler is coming to power.  We meet Liesel on the train on her way to a suburb of Munich where her mother has made arrangements to live with a foster family; Liesel’s father was a communist and disappeared, her mother was ill and unable to care for her children, so fostering Liesel was her best option.  On the train, Liesel’s brother dies, and their journey is delayed at a small town next to the train track so they can burry him.  It is there that a grave digger drops a book which Liesel picks up and carries with her to her new home.  Liesel’s foster father sees her interest in the book and offers to teach her how to read.  In the three years or so of the story, we see Liesel adjust to her new life, make friends, learn to read and write, and come to terms with the inhumanity going on around her.

The interesting twist to this book (and there are a lot about children growing up in Nazi Germany so I twist was needed) is that it is narrated by Death.  As Death reminds the reader, this was a busy time for him, however, Liesel’s story captured his attention when his tasks brought him around her life several times in her youth.  The other thing that Death reminds his reader of is that everyone dies.  And he put that on front-street, and the reader would do well to remember it.

When the narrator of a story pretty much guarantees the death of a bunch of people in the first chapter, you would think it would be easy to stay detached from the characters.  In this case, not at all.  Liesel, her neighbors, and her foster parents are all so well written, so engaging and dynamic, and so likable, that I was turning pages hoping for the best and dreading the worst.  But, as Death promised, when the end comes, it comes for everyone.  Some lives are shorter than others, some are fulfilled and other aren’t, but the end of each made me cry.  Because that’s the tragedy that is life; everyone meets their end, and every life is worth crying over because it had value to those around it.

All that having been said, the writing style to this book is a little all over the place.  Because it’s being narrated by Death, it jumps back and forth, is heavy on the foreshadowing, and I found it going into excessive detail when a few well-chosen words would have done a better job at conveying the author’s intent.  While the plot is interesting, and the characters engaging, the writing style distracts somewhat from those aspects of the book.

So, final verdict?  I’ve heard people say this book has changed their life.  I’m not going to say that.  This is an interesting read, covering some well-trodden ground in an interesting way, true.  But the delivery method was a little rough around the edges, and the lessons it aims to impart are the same lessons that all books writing about the Holocaust and the Third Reich try to deliver.  At the end of the day, The Book Thief is a story about being kind to your neighbor and not harbouring hatred in your heard.  Zusak does a wonderful job at getting that message across, but I’m still going to end up missing the flick in the theaters and the reading of the book didn’t change my life in an intrinsic way.

The Virgin Suicides, by Jeffrey Eugenides

When DVDs first came out, I was at the age when I was working part-time and still living at home, so I had disposable income kicking around (god, those were the good ol’ days….).  With some of that extra scratch, one of the first DVDs I bought myself was Sophia Coppola’s flick, The Virgin Suicides.  It wasn’t until a couple of years later that I heard about the book that it was based on, and read it thanks to a friend’s recommendation.  After reading Middlesex, I was on a quest to read more of Jeffrey Eugenides’ works, so it seemed like a good time to re-read The Virgin Suicides.  Now, it had been a few years since I had seen the movie or read the book, so it was almost like coming to the story fresh.

The plot is a hauntingly chilly look at suburbia during the rise of the American middle-class in the 1970s.  Narrated to the reader by one of the local neighborhood boys, The Virgin Suicides tells the story of the Lisbon girls; five sisters, ranging in age from 13-18.  The boys narrating the story describe their obsession with the beautiful and mysterious Lisbon girls as a long-term fixation, but it develops into an inquest for the truth when the youngest girl, Cecilia commits suicide.  What follows is the boys’ observations on how Mrs. Lisbon cracked down, how Mr. Lisbon fought for sanity in an uncomfortable home-situation, and how the entire family fell apart.

The thing about this book is that I think it could be read a half-dozen different ways by a half-dozen different people.  When I first read it, I was the same general age as the Lisbon girls were; to me, it came across as frightening in its possibilities.  In the re-reading of it, a decade later, I remember back to that era in my life, and wonder how I came out of it (relatively) unscathed.  I’ve never suffered from a serious depression, nor had repressive parents, so now, with the distance of time and the clearing of angsty-hormones from my system, I find I can’t relate as I once did, but I can still empathize.

And that’s the trick behind Eugenides’ writing.  He’s writing, in essence, about young women in the first blush of life, and he’s painted them as realistic, believable and sympathetic characters.  You might not agree with everything that Lux does, or understand Cecilia’s motivations, or can forgive Mary, but each of the girls feels like a real person, who has quirks and flaws that makes them human.  

In terms of writing style, I’m surprised this book isn’t assigned to high school English classes.  It’s rife for analysis on what the girls’ particular choice in song is, or what the planets in Mr. Lisbon’s classroom could symbolize, or the role of the family oak tree in the girls’ understanding of selves.  I don’t think the topic material is beyond the grasp of high school kids, and it can’t be any more psychologically damaging than reading a story about a couple of thirteen year-olds falling so desperately in love they kill themselves (I mean, come on, WHY is that play taught to kids?!), so I think it would be a good one to appear on the syllabi of young people; it might cast light on some sticky situations that high school kids are dealing with.

For all that, I find the ending to this book to be difficult to assimilate.  As the title implies, there are some deaths; maybe because I’ve never been ‘there’ mentally, I find myself to be a casual observer to the slow decline of the Lisbon family.  I can’t understand why the girls do what they do, I can’t agree with it (because I know it always gets better once you’re out of high school), and so I find myself passively accepting the plot structure Eugenides uses.  This is a little odd given how engaging the characters are; usually I’m so emotionally invested in good characters that it kills me if they die, but not in this case.

So, final verdict?  Read this book.  Eugenides knocks it out the park with this one, and the movie is a stunningly beautiful homage to a well-writing piece of literature.  If The Virgin Suicides teaches the reader anything (and all good literature should impart some sort of lesson), it’s that beauty can be found in even the most dismal of situations, and Eugenides’ plot and writing style reflect that moral.

Friday, December 27, 2013

The Rosie Project, by Graeme Simsion

There have been a few books that I’ve read this year because of the hype that were attached to them.  I really enjoyed Gone Girl and The Night Circus, and so I figured I’d take a run at reading one of the books that seems to be mentioned everywhere on Twitter and Facebook, and that has been prominently displayed at Chapters for months: The Rosie Project, by Graeme Simsion.

The Rosie Project is the story of Don Tillman, a professor in genetics at an Australian university who is likely suffering from Asperger’s Syndrome, or at the very least, a really bad case of depression and OCD.  Don is socially inept, uncomfortable stepping outside his daily routine, and, because of these factors, has few friends and an unsuccessful love-life.  While trying to remedy his lack of a love life, Don develops the Wife Project, a statistical attempt at finding a woman to share his life with; that project, however, is side-lined when Don meets Rosie, and instead spends time trying to help Rosie figure out who her biological father is.  As Rosie and Don spend time together, and find they enjoy each other, but Don’s social deficiencies make finding a middle ground hard to establish.  

I have to say, I give Simsion’s kudos for going for it with this book; he committed in a big, bad way to giving the reader an authentic feel for Don as a character, as the dialogue and narration can be as painfully awkward to read as it is to interact with someone like Don in real-life.  Because of Don’s intelligence, his social awkwardness, and his inability to read nuance in the people around him, the character is presented as speaking with grammatical correctness, being unable to distinguish between sincerity and sarcasm, and having no filter for his thoughts.  We all know people like this to some extent, but Don reminds me of the character(s) from the Big Bang Theory, particularly Sheldon, and I don’t watch that show because of those character quirks, and because of the awkward feel to the dialogue.  This book embraces those aspects.

In regards to plot, this book reads very much like a rom-com screen play, and in the author’s note in the back of the book, Simsion mentions that that was the original plan for the story.  The plot relies on a lot of tropes (some acknowledged, some not), that we’ve all seen a million times in a Julia Roberts/Sandra Bullock/Jennifer Aniston movie; fish-out-of-water, well-meaning friends, misunderstandings, self-discovery balanced against a new love….. it’s all very predictable and, at a certain point, pedantic.

Maybe because I went into this book blind, without any real knowledge about it, other than it was incredibly popular, I was expecting more that what was there.  I found the writing style difficult to deal with, the main character annoying, the secondary characters underdeveloped, and the plot to be anything but unique.

So, final verdict?  If you’re someone that feels they have to read the most popular book of the moment, then go for it.  If you’re not that type of person, then I’d say skip it.  Watch one of the millions of rom-coms that are out there, as this book is nothing more than a re-purposed screen-play that was likely rejected by the studios for a reason.  That sounds harsh, I know, but I think I’m pretty disappointed as I don’t understand where the positive hype for The Rosie Project comes from.  Maybe I’m over-reacting, but this is definitely a case of buyer beware for readers out there….

Zoo, by James Patterson and Michael Ledwidge

I spent a summer a few years ago unemployed.  It was horrible.  I had a lot of free time on my hands and I was spending a lot of that time reading (that’s when I started this blog, actually).  I made the mistake of reading World War Z at the time and, while I enjoyed the book, I spent a lot of time fixated on how I would survive the zombie apocalypse.  I mean, I was really fixated on the idea.  For lack of a better term (and because I love puns), it gnawed at me.  So, needless to say, WWZ made an impression.  While wandering through Chapters doing my traditional Boxing Day stock-up of books, I spotted my latest read, Zoo, by James Patterson and Michael Ledwidge.  I knew I had to read the book when I saw its tag-line: “People around the world are panicking… and this time it’s not zombies.”  That’s a pretty big gauntlet, and I was intrigued…

Zoo is about a world-wide pandemic that breaks out where animals, who previously viewed humans wearily as being at the top of the food chain, change their social practices and behaviours and turn on man-kind.  Jackson Oz, intrepid biologist, has been tracking the increasing patterns of Human-Animal Conflict for years, but because his idea was roundly dismissed by academia, when the reader meets him, Oz finds himself on the fringe of acceptability.  However, as the problem develops and spreads, Oz is brought in by the powers to be to work on finding a solution.  

This book is an interesting and engaging read.  It presents a unique problem, and forces the reader to evaluate how they interact with the natural world, how important modern conveniences are to them, and what humanity’s self-imposed power-structures mean to their daily lives.  It also made me eye my cat nervously and suspiciously for the entire day.  While I don’t believe he’d try to eat my face, one can never be quite sure…. Kidding.  Kind of.

While I haven’t read a lot of Patterson’s books, I do recognize this one as following the Patterson-esque formula for success; a young, engaging protagonist, a mounting crisis, and a lot of action.  I’d be surprised if I didn’t see this book at the airport bookstore the next time I take a flight, as it’s ideal for reading on a trip; it’s a fast read, you can come and go from it without missing much, and is just interesting enough to dull your need for a drink while waiting on a delayed flight without needing to over-do the cocktails.  

But, for all that (and without giving away the ending), I found that the solution for the problem of animal attacks was pretty easy to guess at, even before the foreshadowing, and the solution that Oz finds was arrived at with very little difficulty and/or effort.  The exposition on this book is massive – it takes up almost 2/3 if not 3/4 of the book – but the climax and resolution to the story come almost too quickly and are further complicated by the addition of some character development of a secondary character that should have occurred earlier in the story, but that didn’t really even need to happen at all.  

So, final verdict?  I would say read this book.  It’s a great escape from the average action book, and the inventive plot is really engaging and well-done.  Does it compete with World War Z as the tag-line implies?  Not really, but it’s still a good read.  But, whatever you do, don’t get too caught up in suspecting Fluffy to be after you.  He’s probably not.  Unless…..

The Aurora Teagarden Series, by Charlaine Harris

I have two weeks off from work.  Two gloriously weeks.  I have a plan, and that plan is to read.  A lot.  I love having large chunks of time off where nothing is expected of me, where I can give my time of things that interest me and that have caught my attention, and during which I can really dig into a good book (or a dozen good books).  So, because I knew I had a chunk of time coming up, I’ve been hoarding books.  There is nothing like a big chunk of time off to get into a really good book series, so the books I was stocking up on were the Aurora Teagarden series by Charlaine Harris, author of the True Blood books.

I’ve read other Harris series before (see here and here and here), and have considered her a favorite author of mine for a few years now.  The Aurora Teagarden Series is comprised of eight books: Real Murders, A Bone to Pick, Three Bedrooms One Corpse, The Julius House, Dead Over Heals, A Fool and His Money, Last Scene Alive, and Poppy Done to Death.  As the name of the series implies, the main character is Georgian librarian Aurora Teagarden who, like the rest of Harris’ heroines, seems to find herself at the centre of a murder plot at every turn.  As with the rest of Harris’ heroines, Aurora is independent, capable and very resourceful at handling the situations she finds herself in.  There is always a healthy dose of risk to Aurora, but through either her character-traits or a healthy dose of luck, everything seems to turn out right for her.

I have to say, this wasn’t my favourite series by Harris that I read.  I do believe that these are some of her earlier books, and that’s reflected a bit in some of the choppier passages, a lack of the humour that is seen in her other books, and in the more tentative attempts at character development that Harris makes.  While it’s interesting to be able to compare Harris’ more recent work to this series, I do have to say that I enjoyed the Harper Connoley, Lilly Bard and Sookie Stackhouse books way more that I do these ones.

What I will say about these books is that Harris shows how brilliant of an author she is, in that she leaves the door open for more Aurora Teagarden books in the future.  She slams no doors on the possibility, which is a brilliant move, financially speaking, and one she’s done with all her other series that I’ve read to date – it seems like it would always be possible for her to add to her runs with new books, should the fancy take her.

So, final verdict?  If you’re a die-hard Harris fan, then these books are for you.  If you’re just getting into Harris as an author, but don’t want to commit to the True Blood books (it’s by far her most famous and largest series), then I would suggest you try one of the other runs first.  While there are a lot of good points to these books, they almost read like examples of how Harris has refined her styles and abilities over the years; they’re good, Harris has written better.  However, having said that, these are still good books to spend time with if you’re look for a series to get into.

Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides

I get ideas of what book to read next from a lot of places; sometimes, my current read will trigger my next, or I’ll see something in the book store that looks interesting, or I’ll see an interview with an author on a work that I want to read for myself.  My favourite method of selecting a book is a recommendation, which is what happened with my latest read, Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides.  But this recommendation came in a roundabout way; my coworkers were sitting in our staff kitchen talking about it, when one said to the other “I just can’t believe that the grandmother married her brother.”  My jaw hit the table, and I was so pissed that they had ruined (what I had assumed was) the big reveal of the book.  Well, I figured, now that I knew, I might was well read the book to see what kind of train-wreck led up to that event.  However, that information isn’t a secret – it’s the major conceit of the book, and Eugenides puts it on front-street.

So, what’s the story about?  The story is being told to the reader by Calliope, and is about her family history, beginning with her grandparents as they immigrate from Greece to the States in the 1920s.  On the boat over, they pretend to be strangers, marry, and when they arrive state-side, move in with their cousin (who is also married) who agrees to keep their secret.  The book follows the history of Calli’s grandparents, her own parents, and then her own life until her 30s.  The problem is that, while Calli’s childhood is what you would expect for a young girl from an enterprising immigrant family in Detroit, Michigan, Calli is different.  The close blood-lines in the village where her grandparent came from, compounded by their incest, then the marriage of her parents (who were second cousins), led to a gene mutation that haunts Calli.  The entirety of the story is one of self-reflection, self-discovery, and the self, in general.  

Eugenides won a Pulitzer Prize for Middlesex, and I completely agree with that.  His writing style is at once flowery and descriptive, without using one extra or unnecessary word.  He presents his narration almost as if Calli were sitting across from you relating the tale, or as if you’re reading the screen play for the action being described.  You can see the words jump off the page, the characters come to life, and the plot unfolding in front of you; it’s an amazingly well-done writing style, and Eugenides seems to engage in it so effortlessly.

The characters that Eugenides created are a revelation.  From Calli, the young girl who is never quite sure what is wrong with her, to Cal the run away, to Desdemona the guilt-wracked grandmother, to Lefty the unaffected grandfather, and extending to all the other characters who enter Calli’s life, either fleetingly, or who are central to the telling of her story, Eugenides uses a deft-hand to create and develop believable and sympathetic characters that the reader wants to know more of.  It’s a treat in a book to get one engaging character, but to get an entire cast of them is something that I highly prize in the books that I read, and that I really enjoyed in this book.

So, final verdict?  I would definitely say you have to read this book.  The plot concept, the characters and the writing style are all so unique and engaging, that you’ll be missing out on a major contribution to the modern literary tradition if you skip it.  I was so captured with Eugenides that I picked up his other books at the book store the other day, and I’m looking forwards to visiting his works again in the near future.

Quantum of Solace: The Complete James Bond Short Stories, by Ian Fleming

It’s amazing, when you consider it, how early in life our patterns are established; and more, how indelible they are when they’re established in our youths.  One of my favourite holiday traditions started when I was around 10 years old, and continues to this day.  When the Christmas commercials start playing on TV, and the malls drag out their trees and lights, my immediate response it to pop in a James Bond movie.  When I was a kid, there was an American TV network that would run Bond marathons throughout the month of December; I remember fondly being 11 or 12 years old, and getting to stay up to 2am watching movies on a weekend.  I didn’t get the sexual innuendos, and the plots often went over my head, but those marathons became as important to my Christmas as putting out milk and cookies for Santa.  It only lasted a couple of years, but it’s remained unchanged since.

So, when I was looking for my latest read, I was immediately drawn to the work of Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond.  The only work of his that I have is a collection of short stories, but as I’ve never read anything of Fleming’s before, it seemed as good a place as any to start.  Out came Quantum of Solace: The Complete James Bond Short Stories collection, and I tucked in.  The book contains nine stories, many of which have lent their names to Bond films in the past (like For Your Eyes Only, Octopussy, and The Living Daylights); some have elements that were later used in the movies that bear their names, or other movies all together; and some have absolutely nothing to do with the James Bond that the movies have made so popular.
Fleming’s Bond, as he comes across in the stories, is very different from the Connery, Moore, Dalton, Brosnan, Craig, and even Lazenby Bonds we’ve gotten to know.  If anything, I would characterize the literary Bond as more of an administrator that a gun-toting, womanizing bad-ass.  I mean, there are some elements of that in these stories, but Bond mainly comes across as a civil servant who is equally comfortable behind his desk as acting as a sniper in Eastern Germany.  And, honestly, I kind of like the literary Bond more…. There isn’t much character development with him, but he seems richer – he’s not slapping a broad around (Connery), knuckle-dragging (early Craig), or trying to pick-up women who are young enough to be his grand-daughter (Moore).  The literary Bond, maybe because the reader can follow-along with his thought process, is more introspective and gives a better sense of his moral compass.  Admittedly, the current writers for the Bond film as starting to align with that sensitivity, but they aren’t quite there yet.
And yet, for all that, in a few of the stories, Bond is a fringe character.  He is present, or is the inciting factor in the story, but the actual story is someone else’s.  The best example of this, and the best story in the collection (in my opinion), is Quantum of Solace.  A truly horrible movie, but an amazing story that has nothing to do with the plot of the film, Quantum of Solace is a story told by a Caribbean British administrator to Bond at the end of a dinner party.  The story is about another administrator and his wife, who was unfaithful, and the lengths the husband went to to reclaim his dignity.  That, in a nutshell is the quantum of solace; what you have to do to reclaim yourself when the person you love has broken your heart.  There are no guns in this story, no violent death, no espionage – it’s a straight up study of human emotions, and it’s brilliant.  Don’t want to read the whole collection?  Then just read that one story – it’s worth it.
In terms of writing style and readability, these stories reflect the time in which they were written; there is casual racism thrown around, some pretty overt sexism, and a plethora a communists.  For the modern reader (well, for me at least), the first two induced some cringes, and the last was just par for the course if you’re familiar with the movies, but is still an interesting reminder of the Cold War era.
So, final verdict?  This book did exactly what I was hoping it would do - it’s a great introduction to Ian Fleming and the literary James Bond.  If you’ve seen the movies as much as I have, it takes some adjusting to get used to the more sensitive and less brash nature of the Bond that Fleming created, but it’s worth the effort.  I think in the future I’ll be seeking out more of Fleming’s works to see if my impressions of the author’s Bond run throughout his other works.  All that to say, I’d recommend this book. 

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Eva Stachniak Chooses Her Own Adventure Interview!

CYOAI is an interview series with authors, where I send them 10 random questions, and ask them to answer whichever they feel inspired to tackle.  The questions are generally about the author's opinions and personal experiences, but are meant to be light-hearted and a window into a person's creative nature. 

This month's interview features Eva Stachniak, author of The Winter Palace! A big thank you to Eva for humouring me in answering my questions!  Let's see what Eva’s answers were!

What's your first book/reading/writing-related memory?
I must be four years old. I’m in Wroclaw, Poland, holding a book of fairy tales my mother used to read to me from. I leaf though the pages until my eyes catch one title and I realize that I can not only recognize the letters, one by one, but I can string them together: *Braciszek i siostrzyczka — Brother and sister*, the title of one of Brothers Grimm fairy tales.

I will never forget the thrill of knowing I can read by myself.

Have you ever gotten a book hangover from a book?  If so, which one?
It happens very often to me. My first “book hangover” was with *Pipi Longstocking* by Astrid Lindgren. For days I could not read anything else, and that’s saying a lot about a voracious reader. I recall forcing my brother to play Pipi’s games, like getting around the room without touching the floor. It involved jumps from table to sofa, then to our bed, climbing on top of a wardrobe… the neighbours downstairs must have been wondering what we were up to.

I think Pipi was more real to me than any of my friends for quite a while.

Is there one word or turn of phrase that you've felt compelled to work into your writing?
“I would take you in my arms and tell you…”

What book by another author do you wish you had written?
*Wolf Hall* by Hilary Mantel. I loved this novel, loved how it allowed me to live in the mind of Thomas Cromwell. Through him I could see the court of Henry VIII, the streets of London, the inside of Tudor houses. Eavesdrop on conversations. Witness how political decisions are being made.

Where do you find inspiration for your writing?
In other books, mostly. I love novels based on historical characters, and I read many biographies and memoirs. The heroine of my second novel, *Garden of Venus*, Sophie Glavani, was well-known in the eighteen century Poland, and in addition of a biography by a Polish historian, I found many mentions
of her in contemporary memoirs. Catherine the Great was also the subject of many biographies, and—in addition—her reign changed the course of Polish history, so she was always looming important in my life. I’m always on the lookout for extraordinary women who intrigue me….

Do you reread books?  If so, which ones?
Yes. I re-read books that I admire, to observe how they were written, to learn the craft of fiction. I have re-read the historical novels of Penelope Fitzgerald many times, observing and admiring her use of significant details. I re-read Chekhov, Alice Munro, Bruno Schulz, Hilary Mantel.

If you weren't a writer, what would you do as a profession?
A journalist, perhaps. But writing and reading would have to be part of my life.

What's your opinion on Shakespeare?
“…not of an age, but for all time” as Ben Jonson famously declared.

Use the word 'cabal' in a sentence.
A cabal of vicious gossipmongers has ruined her reputation.

**If you’re an author that would like to participate in the Choose Your Own Adventure Interview series, please contact me at elise.guest@alumni.uottawa.ca.**

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Tower, by Nigel Jones

When I travelled to London to work on my Master’s thesis, one of the major tourist activities I wanted to do was a visit to the Tower of London.  I was so gung-ho about it, that my plan was to land at Heathrow, go to my hotel and drop off my stuff (since I would be hours early for check-in), then head to the Tower.  I figured this would be a great plan to cross something of my ‘must-see’ list and avoid jet-lag.  Things didn’t quite work like that….  On the flight from Canada to the UK, I took a combination of OTC meds that were guaranteed to knock me out so I could sleep; but the usual effectiveness was ruined by taking them at 6pm my time, flight attendants, seat mates, and the white noise of the plane (which I find really loud and not at all soothing).  I landed in London, cleared customs, and then took the Tube into town, dragging behind me a massive suite-case stuffed with an office supply store (I was going to work for a full week in the archives), while making a couple of line transfers.  All while suffering the nausea brought on by the OTCs, too little sleep, and the anxiety of travelling alone in a new place.

By the time I got to my hotel, I was almost in tears I was so anxious.  I dropped my bags as planned, washed my face and brushed my teeth in the lobby bathroom, then sat down with my guidebook to see about visiting the Tower.  And promptly nodded in and out of sleep for the next three hours.  I must have looked really sketchy to the guest that were coming and going… but it sure did encourage management to get my room ready as quickly as possible.  Checked in, I headed to my room, took a shower, and had a nap.  Any plans for a visit to the Tower were put on hold.  I realized my initial thoughts of hitting the ground running were ambitious, and I little naïve – I lesson I tried imparting to my dad the next year during out trip to Germany, with very little success.  

All that to say, I have a special place in my history-nerd heart for the Tower of London.  As a British historian, the Tower is a symbol of the continuity of England, Britain and Empire; it’s stood for centuries and was the load-stone for much of the power-base and decision makers over the centuries.  So, while doing my usual peruse through the History section at the local Chapters, my latest read, Tower: An Epic History of the Tower of London by Nigel Jones caught my attention.  At 400 pages, the book certainly did seem epic, so I was excited to pick it up and get into the nitty-gritty of the Tower’s existence.  

The Tower of London got its official start after the Norman invasion of 1066.  The iconic White Tower that we all associate with the Tower of London is of Norman design, and was built in order to intimidate the local populace into accepting the foreign rule of William the Conqueror.  Since the 11th century, the Tower has been expanded upon, redesigned, rebuilt, and revitalized in its multiple roles, multiple times; since its foundation, the Tower has acted as fort, royal palace, religious centre, mint, munitions store, zoo, prison, torture centre, execution site, and home for thousands.  While it is commonly know as the Tower of London, the site is actually a large complex of multiple towers, fortress-like walls, and support buildings.  Originally at the east end of London (and now at its heart), the Tower was an important piece of the daily life of Londoners, Englishmen and women, and Britons since its foundations were set.

My main problem with this book is that the Tower is presented almost as a background player to the events that Jones lays out.  For a book that I was expecting to the ‘an epic history of the Tower of London,’ Jones has a bad habit of going on and on for pages without mentioning the complex.  Rather, Jones’ book is a study of England and Britain’s political history, of which the Tower was a key player by necessity, as one of the most secure royal palaces and prisons in the capital city.  However, to call this book a history of the Tower is flawed.

For the most part, Jones’ study is organized chronologically; he begins with the Normans and goes on from there.  Of the 17 chapters, only four are presented thematically – the first is on the role of the Tower as mint and zoo, the second on escapees, the third on the more colourfull prisoners, and the fourth on the role of the Tower in the two World Wars.  These are by far the most interesting chapters, but they are few and far between, and they are surrounded by a plain-ol’ political history of England.  More, it’s a political history of England that’s heavy on the Tudors and the Roundheads.  While I understand that the Tower was more in use in those periods than in others, it seems like Jones used the Tower as a convenient excuse to get his foot in the door to write about what he really wanted to write about – the sexier bits of English/British political history.  You’re able to tell where Jones’ personal interest in British history is, because these sections are the longest; he manages to cover 1066 until Henry VIII (1509) in about 150 pages, then the Restoration (1660) to present day in about 100 pages; 100 pages to cover almost 400 years?  I felt cheated after the detailed assessment the Tudors and Cavaliers got in the other 150 pages of the book (that’s about 150 years for those keeping count).

Jones himself (according to the bio on the back of the book) is a “historian, journalist, and biographer…”  The journalist bit it easy enough to identify while reading this book.  For all its flaws, it is an interesting and engaging read; Jones took what can be very dry topic mater in the wrong hands, and even though I felt like the book was a bait and switch, got me to keep reading and finish it based on its readability.  

But the other way the journalist in Jones came through in the reading was almost unforgivable.  In writing about the Gun Power Plot (1605), Jones describes it as “… an inhumanely audacious act of random mass terror like 9/11.” (pg. 279)  Just like that.  No context to that comment before or after; he just throws it out there.  I will give Jones that the Gun Power Plot was audacious, maybe even inhumane (but that implies a disregard for human life, and Jones himself notes that the plot was foiled because several of the conspirators’ consciences got in the way), but the planned act was neither random nor ‘mass’ on the scale of 9/11.  In the 2011 terrorist attacks on America, the goal was a high body count of as many people as possible – it was indiscriminate.  Guy Fox and his cronies were aiming to blow up the Houses of Parliament during its opening session; they new approximately how many victims their act would impact, and it was targeted at the ruling elite, not the average citizen.  Jones’ inflammatory comment really threw a huge hurdle down in my reading about the Plot, and showed his journalism background in his efforts (I assume) to sell copy.

So, final verdict?  I would say if you’re a history buff, this is a book for you, but don’t expect Jones to deliver on the promise of the title.  If, however, your interest is only in the history of the Tower, take a pass.  Jones’ work is far from an ‘epic history of the Tower,’ and is more a well-written history of English and British politics.  Which is a shame, because his research and writing styles make me think he would have nailed a true history of the Tower.  As for me, I did finally get to visit the Tower while in London.  It was a highlight of my trip, and I recommend everyone put it on their Bucket List.  (For more on my visit to the Tower, see an older blog of mine here.)

Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Devil's Beat, by Robert Edric

When browsing through the local Chapters, my latest read caught my eye then my attention; The Devil’s Beat, by Robert Edric, has a creepy-looking cover (yes, I judge books by the cover – we all do) and a interesting title; the write-up on the back was equally engaging, so I threw it into the pile of books I was getting, and headed for the check out.  All in all, it turned into something of a disappointment.

The Devil’s Beat tells the story of a small English town in 1910.  The main character, Merritt is sent to the town by his London bosses to head up an inquiry into claims that five girls (ranging in age from nine to fourteen) witnessed the Devil in the local forest.  All of this sounds like the makings for a ‘modern-day’ witch hunt and a really interesting plot.  And yet, for all the potential, this book fell flat.

Edric’s tale begins with almost no back story.  The only way I knew that it was 1910 and the story was occurring in England was because I read the back of the book; and, in fact, the year is only hinted at one, about 200 pages in.  There is no up-front explanation for who Merritt is, what his actual job is, or what his experience is; again, you only get that information in drips and drabs throughout the book.  Finally, the whole ‘we saw the Devil’ aspect of the story is never fully explained or acknowledged until almost 100 pages in – for the first third of the book, the reader is guessing at why Merritt is there and what is happening in the small town; if you hadn’t read the back of the book, I think you’d be lost.

Plot development aside, I have serious problems with the characters as well.  As mentioned, Merritt appears in the book with almost no back story; some of the supporting characters have a bit more context, but not much.  The other major problem I had with most of the major the characters was that they came across as bumbling fools; of the four-man panel that head up the inquiry into the girls’ claims, they all come across as incompetent and out of their league – Merritt included.  Finally, and possibly the biggest sin to someone like me for whom characters are of central importance to enjoying a book, there was no character development in the end.  Merritt, perhaps because we don’t know much about him at all, comes across as flat, the supporting cast don’t have a satisfactory conclusion, and the antagonist doesn’t see the error of their ways.  What I will give Edric is that his antagonist was a really interesting character, however, that character doesn’t appear much, and that aspect of the story is left hanging.  All in all, not very satisfying.

So, final verdict?  Skip this book.  The most interesting thing about it was the write up on the back, and then it falls flat.  Unfortunately, the write up in the back of my copy for another of Edric’s books looks really interesting, but now I’m gun-shy to read anymore of his work for fear of wasting my time.  I guess the moral of this review is that when the synopsis of your book is better than the book itself, you should probably hire a less talented synopsis writer.

The Thursday Next Series, by Jasper Fforde

When I find a book that I love, and it’s part of a series, you can bet big money that I’ll be rushing out to the local Chapters to pick up all the other books.  Finding a good series, one that I can sink my teeth into and really enjoy, is a treat, and something that doesn’t happen all that often.  So, after reading (and loving) The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde, I immediately rushed out and picked up the rest of the books in the Thursday Next Series: Lost in a Good Book, The Well of Lost Plots, Something Rotten, First Among Sequels, One of Our Thursdays is Missing, and The Woman Who Died a Lot.  (And I see there’s to be an eighth book – Dark Reading Matter, expected in 2015.)

Fforde’s Thursday Next universe is one that is remarkable similar to our own.  Thursday lives and works in Swindon, and the day-to-day niceties are all the same.  But Thursday’s world is one of time-travel, genetic splicing, and werewolves.  Thursday works for a branch of the British government that deals with literary crimes, has a pet dodo named Pickwick, and has a time-travelling father who has gone rogue and so was never technically born.

But, this is only Thursday’s life in our world.  What makes Thursday’s adventures so interesting and exciting is that she is able to jump into BookWorld; the world in which all books of fiction exist.  In BookWorld, the characters are living, breathing people, independent of their plot lines; settings are only in use when a book is being read; and all sorts of shenanigans and hijinks occur for which Thursday and the other agents of Jurisfiction are required to step in and police the goings on of the citizens of BookWorld.  It all sounds highly unbelievable, but when Fforde sets BookWorld in the terms of modern bureaucracy, it all becomes very relatable and understandable; somehow, he was able to create a fictional world that lives right under the readers’ noses.  And the meta-jokes.  So many meta-jokes.

Stepping into the Thursday Next universe takes two things: 1- suspension of disbelief, and 2- a sense of humour.  If you can bring both of these things to a reading of these books, you’re guaranteed to love them.  Thursday’s adventures, and the people that populate them, are all highly unbelievable and at first I wasn’t sure if I could fully buy into them.  But by the end of book two, they become de rigueur; at some point, it becomes completely understandable and acceptable that croquet is the world’s favorite sport, that minotaurs dress in trench-coats and drop pianos on people, and that dodos just can’t be taught to stand on one leg, no matter how many marshmallows you offer them.

So, final verdict?  I loved these books, and so I would highly recommend them.  Fforde’s writing style is highly accessible, his characters are incredibly engaging, and his plots are unique, innovative and enjoyable.  If you’re the type of person that enjoys a quirky read, then these books are for you.  Fforde’s got several other books out (and a couple from a new series), and I’ll definitely be picking them up in the near future.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

AJ Jacobs Chooses His Own Adventure Interview!

CYOAI is an interview series with authors, where I send them 10 questions, and ask them to answer whichever they feel inspired to tackle.  The questions are generally about the author's opinions and personal experiences, but are meant to be light-hearted and a window into a person's creative nature.

This month's interview features AJ Jacobs, author of Drop Dead Healthy! A big thank you to AJ for humouring me in answering my questions!  Let's see what his answers were!

What's your first book/reading/writing-related memory?
It was terrified of the book "Are You My Mother?" Childhood is stressful enough. I didn't need to read about an abandoned bird. 
Have you ever gotten a book hangover from a book?  
(A book hangover being a feeling of being unable to start another read because you're still wrapped up in the last one.)
I've gotten hangovers from writing books, where I've never wanted to write again.  But reading? It's too much of a pleasure. 
Is there one word or turn of phrase that you've felt compelled to work into your writing?
I'm a fan of the word vainglorious. I'm not even sure I've ever used it in writing till that previous sentence, but I've been a longtime fan. 
What book by another author do you wish you had written?
I'm jealous of Josh Foer, who wrote Moonwalking With Einstein. It's about how he became the memory champion of the United States. Of course, writing that would have necessitated such feats as memorizing the order of four randomly-shuffled decks of playing cards, which I'm not quite sure I could accomplish. Or pretty sure I couldn't. 
Where do you find inspiration for your writing?
I often force myself to spend 15 minutes brainstorming every day. I know that forced creativity sounds paradoxical -- but it works! 
(I wrote about it here
http://www.linkedin.com/today/post/article/20131107131742-4061630-the-most-important-fifteen-minutes-of-my-day?trk=mp-reader-card )
Do you reread books?  If so, which ones?
I have the opposite problem. I have trouble finishing books because there are so many other ones I want to start. I'm monogamous in my marriage, but quote a philanderer in my reading habits. 
If you weren't a writer, what would you do as a profession?
I'd be the social media director for Praeger's, makers of delicious spinach pancakes. Highly recommended! 
What's your opinion on Shakespeare?
I might come off as a rampallian (aka a "mean wretch," I had to look it up too), but I'm only a partial Shakespeare fan. I love his use of language and his tragedies. But his comedies? I'm sure they were groundbreaking in their day, but now it just seems like a Three's Company episode -- mistaken identities, men dressed as girls, lots of puns. 
Use the word 'margarine' in a sentence.
Margarine is vainglorious. 
If you could only read OR write for the rest of your life, which would you choose?
I'd have to say write. Since, at least for now, until the publishing model implodes, I make my living that way.

**If you’re an author that would like to participate in the Choose Your  Own Adventure Interview series, please contact me at elise.guest@alumni.uottawa.ca.**